The Forgotten Classic: Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969)

March 6, 2017 | By

Gordon Parks adapted his 1964 novel for the big screen in 1969.

Of the handful of key films cited by film historians as milestones in which Hollywood tackled racism towards African-Americans, The Learning Tree (1969), Gordon Parks’ feature film debut, is often overlooked in favour of his better-known, commercial hit Shaft (1971), perhaps because the latter was more contemporary, offered sex & violence, and an Oscar-winning score by Isaac Hayes that made a fortune for studio MGM and labels Stax and Enterprise.

Another factor that’s subjugated Tree to deep catalogue status lies in its story of a teen – Newt – who experiences racism and must carefully navigate through the system circa 1920s Kansas to find work, gain a solid education, and stay clear of the law, which is essentially one bigoted sheriff capable of shooting a man in the back with total impunity; contrast that with super-virile John Shaft who carries a big gun and takes little crap from anyone, and proves to be the only figure willing to take deadly risks to save a life, thereby humiliating the police for sticking to rules and arcane behavioral codes scripted by white folks.

Gordon Parks directing The Learning Tree.

Both films were directed by the same skilled artist, former photographer and Life magazine photo-essayist Parks, but represent very different approaches in dramatizing racism. As I tallied the end of the review of Tree, Parks’ debut never managed to achieve its recognition as a classic and enjoy a Special Edition release – aspects that frustrate fans who feel the film’s frequently been bumped back into deep catalogue status when other pivotal statements on racism – In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Shaft (1971), Roots (1977) – remain in print on disc, and are reissued (Shaft excepted) in anniversary editions ever few years.

Tree is available as a Warner Archives MOD disc, but just putting it out on DVD is still a step back from packing it with extras that help contextualize its importance in American film history. Parks’ first film has its share of flaws, but its wide release and critical success proved an African-American filmmaker was bankable, and enabled Shaft to exist two years later.

Shaft is also one of two Parks-directed films that remain in print, whereas his other work – short and long-form – are absent or much tougher to find. Warner’s bare bones on-demand DVD may be the end point for Tree, so perhaps Parks’ work in film might get its due if and when  his other major film, a bio-drama of blues guitarist Leadbelly (1976), makes its debut on disc (preferably on Blu).

Coming shortly: review of Joan Micklin Silver’s cult film Chilly Scenes of Winter (1982), released on Blu by Twilight Time, a Nikkatsu naughty, and the cult Ozploitation thriller The Survivor (1981) from Severin.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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